Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 1, 2019

Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of The People

Filed under: Film,journalism — louisproyect @ 10:31 pm

Opening today at the Quad Cinema in NY and at the Laemmle a week from now is the documentary “Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of The People” that despite being made before 2016 (based on the typical schedule of film productions) could not be more relevant to the current crisis. With the battle between Donald Trump and the “mainstream media” over “fake news”, a look at the life and career of Joseph Pulitzer will give us the perspective we need on how newspapers functioned in the broader fabric of American society during the Gilded Age. He symbolized the ultimate contradictions of the capitalist press. Determined to boost circulation, he tailed after William Randolph Hearst’s “fake news” during the Spanish-American War and lived to regret it. If “click bait” is the bête noire of electronic media, so was the circulation wars between Pulitzer’s The World and Hearst’s The Journal. For those who are nostalgic for the good old days of responsible reporting, seeing this excellent documentary will remind you how much they have in common with the bad new days we are living through now.

Born in 1847, Joseph Pulitzer was a Hungarian Jew who grew up in dire poverty. Of his 8 siblings, only one other grew into adulthood. His father died when he was 11, leaving the family to its own devices. At the age of 17, he took advantage of a recruitment offer from the Union army. Since Lincoln had a shortage of troops as a result of rich northerners paying bribes to keep their kids from serving, immigrants would get tickets to America to replenish the ranks.

Managing to stay alive, Pulitzer found himself unemployed at the end of the war but resourceful enough to “Go West, Young Man” as Horace Greeley put it. He ended up in St. Louis and found himself playing chess with Carl Schurz, the German revolutionary who was a “Forty-Eighter” just like Pulitzer’s uncles. That in itself might have recommended him to Schurz but the older and highly successful man was far more impressed with the beating he took at the chessboard from the youth. Seeing him as a gifted individual, he hired him to work at his newspaper. Rising rapidly to the top, Pulitzer amassed enough money to buy what would become the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a newspaper that the family owned until 2005.

As ambitious as he was shrewd, Pulitzer decided that New York was the place to go if you wanted to be in the media “big leagues”. Leveraging the money he made in St. Louis, Pulitzer bought The World and turned into the kind of newspaper that he pioneered, namely a tabloid-style voice that took up the cause of poor people and that held the feet of the rich to the fire.

I say “tabloid-style” because it was a full-page newspaper like the NY Times rather than the NY Post or the NY Daily News. However, the emphasis was on attention-getting stories about corruption, Gilded Age plutocracy of the sort symbolized by Stephen Schwarzman today, and “human interest” stories about the kinds of people who paid a penny each day to read The World.

A typical circulation ploy by Pulitzer was to publicize the need for a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty that was being put together during the paper’s rise to the top. He called on New Yorkers to contribute to a fund to pay for the pedestal and who would be recognized for their contribution by being named in an Honor Roll in the paper. He made sure to update the Honor Roll only several days after the contribution was made (usually between a penny and a dime) in order to encourage those making a donation to buy the paper each day until their name showed up.

In 1895, Harvard graduate and rich kid William Randolph Hearst came to New York from California and launched the Journal. Showing the kind of mercilessness depicted in his fictional version in “Citizen Kane”, he began poaching reporters and editors from the World. In addition, he adopted the tabloid style of the World that was expressed above all by Hogan’s Alley, a comic strip that featured a bald kid in a yellow nightshirt nicknamed The Yellow Kid. After Hearst lured the author to the Journal, he escalated the sensationalism to the point of caricature, so much so that the term “yellow journalism” encompassed both newspaper.

When the battleship Maine blew up in Havana’s harbor, Hearst featured the same kinds of articles that led up to George W. Bush’s war in Iraq and LBJ’s war in Vietnam before that. “Fake news” would be an understatement. Under pressure to sell newspapers, Pulitzer began publishing the same kind of “yellow journalism” but would live to regret it. Close to his death, he featured investigative reporting on President Theodore Roosevelt’s virtual colonization of Panama that was calculated to enrich investors in the new canal. Roosevelt was so incensed that he sued Pulitzer for libel but the Supreme Court ruled in Pulitzer’s favor in the interest of freedom of the press.

The film benefits from interviews with academic historians and media professors but above all one interviewee stands out, namely Nicholson Baker, the author of the WII revisionist (after the fashion of Howard Zinn) “Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization”. In 1999, Baker discovered that the British Library had plans to junk more than 2,000 bound volumes of American newspapers, including hundreds of editions of Joseph Pulitzer’s ground-breaking color pages of the New York World. Baker spent $26,000 of his own money to rescue the archives and the film would not be nearly so brilliant without their images.

Most of us know the name Pulitzer through the annual prizes bestowed in his name. He funded the awards and the Columbia Journalism School as well. He was a complex man who deserved the complex treatment he received in this film. If newspapers are in bad shape today, we can at least be grateful that documentary film is in its golden age.

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